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The many deaths of Captain Cook: a study in metropolitan mass culture, 1780-1810

Scobie, Ruth (2013) The many deaths of Captain Cook: a study in metropolitan mass culture, 1780-1810. PhD thesis, University of York.

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This thesis traces metropolitan representations, between 1780 and 1810, of the violent death of Captain James Cook at Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii. It takes an interdisciplinary approach to these representations, in order to show how the interlinked texts of a nascent commercial culture initiated the creation of a colonial character, identified by Epeli Hau’ofa as the looming “ghost of Captain Cook.” The introduction sets out the circumstances of Cook’s death and existing metropolitan reputation in 1779. It situates the figure of Cook within contemporary mechanisms of ‘celebrity,’ related to notions of mass metropolitan culture. It argues that previous accounts of Cook’s fame have tended to overemphasise the immediacy and unanimity with which the dead Cook was adopted as an imperialist hero; with the result that the role of the scene within colonialist histories can appear inevitable, even natural. In response, I show that a contested mythology around Cook’s death was gradually constructed over the three decades after the incident took place, and was the contingent product of a range of texts, places, events, and individuals. The first section examines responses to the news of Cook’s death in January 1780, focusing on the way that the story was mediated by, first, its status as ‘news,’ created by newspapers; and second, the effects on Londoners of the Gordon riots in June of the same year. It suggests that the related demands and concerns of mass culture and commerce inform the representation of Cook’s death in elegy (such as Anna Seward’s Elegy on Captain Cook) and visual art (such as John Webber’s Death of Cook). The second section discusses the further absorption of Cook’s death into metropolitan entertainment culture. The key site for this process was the Leverian Museum, in the centre of London, where artefacts collected by Cook’s crew in Hawaii were displayed in a room dedicated to his memory. The section suggests that these objects were presented as sensational or sentimental relics of distant ‘Owhyhee.’ The techniques by which this took place emerged from similar presentations, in popular entertainment, of antiquities as animated materialisations of a gothic past. These techniques, in often controversial ways, shaped the understanding of Cook’s death, not only in the museum but also in travel writing, theatre, poetry and painting.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: James Cook, newspapers, mass media, mass culture, fame, celebrity, museum, gothic, elegy, entertainment
Academic Units: The University of York > English and Related Literature (York)
Identification Number/EthosID: uk.bl.ethos.577442
Depositing User: Ms Ruth Scobie
Date Deposited: 12 Aug 2013 08:26
Last Modified: 24 Jul 2018 15:20
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/4305

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